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The logo of the social media video app TikTok displayed on a tablet screen in Paris on November 21, 2019. The app has recently made moves in the US to boost its profile amid subsiding political pressure, but scrutiny of Chinese apps remains high. Photo: AFP

TikTok steps up efforts in US to boost popularity as Trump-era hostility subsides, but political challenges remain

  • TikTok is testing a new ‘stories’ feature for ephemeral video, sponsoring a cybersecurity competition, and getting free in-flight access on American Airlines
  • ByteDance’s efforts to woo American users come as political tensions linger after former US president Trump tried to ban the app last year
TikTok, the popular short video app developed by Beijing-based ByteDance, is stepping up efforts to boost its profile in the US since political pressure on the platform has subsided following the departure of former president Donald Trump.

In the past few days, it was revealed that the platform is testing a new “TikTok Stories” feature, sponsoring a cybersecurity competition, and being offered as free in-flight entertainment to American Airlines passengers.

Despite the company’s apparent confidence, security concerns around TikTok have not fully subsided. Although it survived efforts from Trump to ban the app last year, the new US administration under President Joe Biden has ordered a review of apps associated with foreign adversaries, which includes TikTok. Another hurdle in the country is the Endless Frontier Act, which cleared the Senate in May and would ban the app on US government devices.

Kuaishou retreats from US market after failing to take on TikTok

However, the app’s popularity has continued to grow. Early last year, it surpassed Facebook to become the world’s most downloaded app when numbers were combined with its Chinese version, Douyin. It has also been the most popular app on Apple’s iOS devices in the US for the past three months, according to app-tracking firm App Annie.

In a bid to maintain its appeal, TikTok has been testing a new “stories” feature that allows users to post ephemeral videos. With stories, users can “share daily highlights that disappear after 24 hours”, according to screenshots tweeted on Thursday by British social media consultant Matt Navarra.

When asked about the new feature, TikTok responded that it is “experimenting with ways to give creators additional formats to bring their creative ideas to life for the TikTok community”.

The feature is similar to Snapchat and Instagram Stories. Twitter introduced its own version called Fleets last year, but discontinued it this week, citing lack of interest.

Separately, TikTok this week announced that it was the founding sponsor of the esports-like US Cyber Games. The app’s chief security officer is joining the Cyber Games board to “help the US Cyber Team develop critical teamwork and technical skills”, and it hopes to inspire potential cybersecurity talent by harnessing the educational benefits of gaming, according to a statement from the company on Tuesday.


US President Joe Biden drops Donald Trump orders seeking ban on China’s TikTok, WeChat

US President Joe Biden drops Donald Trump orders seeking ban on China’s TikTok, WeChat

TikTok also made news on Monday when American Airlines announced that it was adding the app to its free in-flight entertainment options, giving passengers 30 minutes of free access each flight.

While the app has maintained its popularity against political headwinds, TikTok has been facing mounting competition. Google’s YouTube got into the short video race in March with its new Shorts feature. This month, the online video behemoth started handing out funds to creators in an effort to quickly scale the platform’s new section.

Another US challenger is Triller, which launched as a video editor in 2015 before pivoting to short video and gaining traction last year amid TikTok’s troubles. Triller recently started offering so-called shoppable video, a trend that integrates e-commerce with short videos by allowing people to directly purchase the products they see.
Triller’s video feed, discovery tab and profile page. The short video app grew in popularity in 2020, amid a backlash against TikTok in India and the US. Image: Triller screenshots

TikTok has started pursuing this trend after ByteDance already incorporated live-streaming e-commerce into Douyin.

As the short video market has become saturated, smaller rivals have been retreating. Kuaishou Technology, ByteDance’s biggest short video rival in China, pulled its TikTok clone Zynn from Apple’s App Store in the US this week.

For four of the first seven months of the year, the US has been TikTok’s second-largest market in terms of downloads on Android and iOS, after accounting for Douyin iOS downloads in China, according to market intelligence firm Sensor Tower. The US fell out of the app’s top two markets from April to June, and returned last month.